“When I have an Oliver Stone on,” Stephen Colbert said Monday night on The Late Show, “I want to talk about politics, I want to talk about philosophy. I want to talk about what is truth, what is not truth, what we can understand.”
It’s the kind of philosophical chitchat that doesn’t readily flourish on a talk show, even one hosted by Colbert, one of the sharpest conversationalists in the business. The brevity of the format prohibits it. And on Monday night, Colbert’s guest Oliver Stone, with whom Colbert has in the past had congenial conversations about politics and art, suggested as much. Stone pointed at his watch: “Give me time.”
On Colbert’s show, Stone got his time — sort of. It was tougher going than he seemed to expect, though in retrospect you wonder whether it really could have played out any differently. There had already been a rumor that the interview had gone awry after comedian T.J. Miller, who was also a guest on the show, tweeted that Stone had “jaw droppingly praised” Putin at the day’s taping. “IT WAS VERY MUCH INSANE,” wrote Miller in a tweet thread that was soon deleted.
Stone was there to discuss his new Showtime series, The Putin Interviews, in which 30 hours of footage of the filmmaker and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recorded over the past two years, has been condensed into a four-hour, four-part series. The first episode, comprised of interviews recorded in 2015 and early 2016, also aired Monday night — and Colbert admits, during his time with Stone, that he hasn’t seen any of it yet. Reviews about the series have been running since last week, however, and they’ve been almost uniformly harsh. It was already pretty clear that people would have questions.
Colbert jumps right into those questions. “You’ve gotten a little heat,” he says. “People have said you’re being too cozy with him, that you believe him too easily. What do you say to people who say this is a fawning interview of a brutal dictator?”
“You know, you have to be polite,” Stone responds, “because it was a two-year deal.” Interviewing the president of Russia is apparently a tough hustle. “He has a busy schedule. He works 12-hour days for almost 16 years now. So, you know, it’s politeness, and it’s curiosity, and it’s the way you ask the questions.”
The problem, of course, is that Stone’s interviews with Putin often come off as more than dutifully polite; being magnanimous, you could say they’re ingratiating, at best. Colbert opened his Stone segment with a clip from the series in which Stone suggests, to Putin, that the man is so influential he could swing the American election in either direction. “If you said subtly that you preferred X candidate,” Stone is seen saying to Putin, “he would go like that tomorrow.” Stone makes a thumbs down. “And if you say you didn’t like Trump or something, what would happen? He would be — he’d win, right? You have that amount of power in the U.S.”
“Unlike many partners of ours,” Putin says in the clip, “we never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries. That is one of the principles we stick to in our work.” In the moment, Stone lets that slide — and on his show, Colbert sought clarity on whether this was merely a product of the interview’s editing, or whether Stone really let Putin off that easy. Stone admits he didn’t press it. “That doesn’t seem like an interview,” says Colbert, finally. “That seems like an opportunity for [Putin] to merely propagandize.” Stone and Colbert’s time together goes downhill from there.
It was a disappointing performance from Stone, but not a surprising one. Stone could make the excuse that, in 2016, when asking Putin about influencing the U.S. presidential election — a high-wire act of a question, to begin with — he was working under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win. Perhaps, Stone might then say, he didn’t yet know to be suspicious of Russian interference, or still refused to trust the growing evidence that might have caused him to be so — a very Oliver Stone thing to do. Just last week in The New York Times, however, Stone downplayed James Comey’s Senate testimony (“A lot of smoke. I don’t see much fire”), and Monday night on Colbert’s couch, he claimed Putin — whose reign has coincided with the deaths of over 20 journalists investigating corruption in Russia — had been abused in the press. He was met with boos from Colbert’s audience.
Part of this is merely the result of Stone’s active, but misguided, political imagination. He’s on the record as a historical revisionist, which can be a problem, but his best political dramas exploit that instinct, getting at the truth of the sentiment of political history — how we, as a public, experience the political tides that upturn our lives — rather than the factual truth of it. I don’t rewatch JFK to analyze whether its feverishly conspiratorial assertions about the Kennedy assassination are right. It seems pretty clear that they are not. I rewatch because it’s a movie about the generation-wide strains of political idealism that died when Kennedy did. That’s something journalism and history can teach you, but great art can make that sentiment come alive.
Art can transform that raw material of history into something invigorating and perceptive. But Vladimir Putin isn’t fiction — he isn’t a character. Stone, who likened his easygoing interviewing style to drawing out a performance, makes the embarrassing mistake of treating him like one, rewriting the history of Putin’s reign as the story of a man bound by his duty to his position and to his own ideals — rather than as an investigation of those ideals or the havoc wreaked while Putin’s been in that position. The Putin Interviews start from childhood — just as Stone’s Nixon does. Stone welds his sense of who Putin is to a series of false and, frankly, dangerous premises about Putin’s impact on the world — all exclusively from the vantage point of Putin himself, who is only too happy to collaborate in Stone’s retelling of history.
Monday night on Colbert, Stone spoke of Putin like he’s the hero of an Oliver Stone movie: complex, maybe wrong, maybe even dangerous, but nevertheless worthy of a sympathetic four-hour epic, and absolutely worthy of our ear. “I think he’s devoted to his country,” Stone said Monday night, “and I’m amazed at his calmness, as I said, and his courtesy.” Colbert, in return, offered this reminder: “Putin is an oppressive leader of his country who suppresses the free press and arrests his enemies. And that is not something that I, as an American, or a member of the press, can respect.”
Putin is undoubtedly complicated — and smart enough to work a guy like Stone, apparently. But Stone’s veneer of respect amounts to nothing more than fan fiction. And Colbert, thank God, called him out on it.